The limits of the cellular capacity to mediate an estrogen response

Paul Webb, Gabriela N. Lopez, Geoffrey L. Greene, John D. Baxter, Peter J. Kushner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

129 Scopus citations


While steroid response is generally restricted by the availability of steroid receptors, the theoretical limits of the response are not known. We have constructed a series of cell lines that stably express the estrogen receptor (ER) at levels up to 5,000,000 ERs per cell and employed these cells to explore the limits of the estrogen response. Several reporter genes with estrogen response elements upstream of the herpes thymidine kinase promoter showed hyperbolic saturation kinetics with increasing ER. Maximum response was 10 times that seen in cell lines with receptor titers comparable to physiological levels. Half-maximal responses required 500,000 receptors per cell, and cells with 5,000,000 ERs showed greater than 90% maximum induction. Estradiol dose-response studies indicated that the receptors are limiting below 500,000 ERs per cell, but at higher ER titers there are spare receptors. In contrast to most reporters, the widely used reporter pA2-CAT, which has 200 base pairs of Xenopus vitellogenin DNA between the response element and the promoter, showed squelching at ER levels beyond 500,000 per cell. Cell lines that expressed ER above this level activated pA2-CAT with a distorted hormone dependence, where saturating ligand concentrations were inhibitory. All reporters displayed squelching when the ER was provided by transient transfection at a level that we judge is 20,000,000 per cell by extrapolation from the behavior of stable cell lines. These findings suggest that saturation of the cellular capacity to mediate an estrogen response and ER-dependent squelching occur at receptor titers well above those encountered in nature. If current models of steroid hormone action are correct, the findings also imply that estrogen response elements are occupied to very small extents under normal conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)157-167
Number of pages11
JournalMolecular Endocrinology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Endocrinology


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